Just wrote an essay on Hong Kong’s neon signs for M+, Hong Kong’s museum of visual culture. Titled Architecture of communication: the visual language of Hong Kong’s neon signs, the essay traces the influences and development of neon signs in Hong Kong, exploring their connections with architecture, urban design, typography as well as production processes. It also introduces a typology of Hong Kong’s signscape, and profusely illustrated. I hope that this essay will spark an interest on the study, preservation and continuation of this unique part of Hong Kong’s visual culture.
It is sometimes said that the wealth and prosperity of a city can be measured by how bright it is after dusk. Ask any tourist who has been to Hong Kong, and they will recall memories of the spectacular night view. ‘The Pearl of the Orient’ is a term that has been synonymous with Hong Kong since at least the 1950s. The romanticism associated with this title of endearment is no doubt symbolised by Hong Kong’s eclectic and vibrant neon signs. They line Hong Kong’s major thoroughfares and neighbourhoods, making the city come to life especially after dark.
Written words and visual symbols are all around us, and in Hong Kong they permeate every corner of the city. Visual messages rendered in Chinese and English, manifested in a plethora of scales, stylistic variations, colours, arrangements, materials and degrees of transience, display our city’s energy and spirit. They represent who we are as a people, our aesthetic temperament and the kind of life that we lead in this particular corner of the globe that is Hong Kong.
The technology of making neon signs was introduced to Hong Kong in the early 1930s. The burgeoning growth of neon signs, however, took place after the Second World War when Hong Kong was in a period of rapid economic regeneration. Neon was a perfect medium to advertise all kinds of economic activities, from restaurants, department stores and movie theatres to bars, nightclubs and saunas. Neon signs not only provided a solution to the increasingly keen competition for an ever-growing customer base with more disposable income and leisure time, but they were also a potent symbol of Hong Kong as an emerging economy and attractive tourist destination.